Can Europe Make It?

Civil society at its best?

'Hacking Madrid' shows how the use of technology can bring more democracy to policy-making, however the film raises more questions than answers about the risks and safeguards involved.

Alice Nicolov
18 December 2015

In an age where technology dominates our lives, there has until recently been a glaring absence of it in politics. While the politically active understand the uses of social media, very little has been done to insert technology into the act of policy making itself.

Social media provides any number of platforms for people to share information and most people in Europe know that they can access any information that they feel they need. The difficulty in the past has been that responsibility has been placed on the individual to seek out precisely the information they want. Now people can be targeted online by those who want them to receive certain information; technology has made information sharing the norm because conceptually social media is ‘social’.

Up until recently this virtual political world had taken place mostly in terms of opposition, giving voice to whistle blowing, protest movements, iconoclasm and so on. Julian Assange and Wikileaks is an excellent example of this. While politics is no stranger to using technology to sound out the views of its supporters it has, on the whole, held back from communicating with the public directly with a view to allowing the public’s views to actually shape party policy. Instead, politics has relied on internal machinations to edit the final offer that will be presented to the public. 

‘Hacking Madrid’ is part of Al Jazeera’s new TV documentary series ‘Rebel Geeks’, which examines the role of technology, tech companies and surveillance in today’s world. In the week before Spain goes to the polls the documentary follows former hacker turned politician Pablo Soto and Participation Director Miguel Arana from the Ahora Madrid administration, as they try to launch ‘Decide Madrid’, a website allowing citizens of the capital to propose and vote on their own policies.

The film presents Decide Madrid’s simple premise convincingly: that the people themselves are given an open, information sharing forum whereby they are no longer a collection of isolated individuals but instead part of a communal platform to propose political initiatives. It is presented as ‘civil society at its best’ and the idea appears so simple that it makes the viewer wonder why it hasn’t been done before. Why have electorates not demanded direct input via technology and why have political parties not included millions of individuals in party decision-making before now?

If the viewer takes this film on its own terms, the idea behind Decide Madrid is excellent. The propositions put forward (the abolition of bullfighting, making Madrid sustainable etc.) are in-tune with a modern, forward looking society. As the viewer watches, however, the doubts about this sort of system start to creep in. 

While some of these issues are touched upon, they are not examined in depth by the documentary and while the fact that the film is only 25 minutes long may go some way to explaining this lack of a deeper analysis, it still presents a problem. The most serious issue- that of the development of an ‘internet dictatorship’ - is picked up on and solutions for the less tech-savvy or those who don’t have access to smart phones and Wi-Fi are offered. The documentary does not, however, address what might happen if those most politically active online, the most vocal and strident in their beliefs, start to dominate the political landscape. Will only their voices be heard? 

Furthermore, if Ahora Madrid is going to be reliant on the voice of the people, how does it know who the people are on their platform? As time goes by can they maintain a broad spectrum of participation? Would the party end up talking only to its own supporters? This leads one onto the next issue, and the one most unsettling for me. While the film mentions that more extreme proposals are rejected, it does not say what might happen if a more radical administration were to take power. Would extreme views be given legitimacy by the platform? How could ‘mob rule’ be prevented? 

Finally, one would have expected the Decide Madrid website to have gone viral as a result of the Indignados movement. Instead the creators of the platform have been left scrambling for support in the weeks leading up to the elections. Why have those thousands of people who demonstrated in Puerta del Sol in 2011 not jumped on Ahora Madrid’s initiative? Clearly this is a concern for the organisers who resort to raiding the council’s database for public email addresses in order to widen the support base. This raises questions about data security and the privacy of the citizenry.

‘Hacking Madrid’ is a good example of how technology can be used to gain political momentum and involve people. Technology is now essential in politics, but the safeguards and the deeper implications of this are not addressed fully,. While the idea itself is a brave initiative and the individuals shown in the film are clearly passionate about democracy and citizen involvement, the viewer is left with far more questions than answers by the end. We can all agree on the need for more transparency and democracy in politics, how far the programme can go and how much support it can garner remains to be seen.

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